Ryan Pace did a ton of heavy lifting this offseason to revamp the tight ends room.
He handed $9 million in guarantees (and a no-trade clause!) to Jimmy Graham, doled out another $1.65 million in cash to Demetrius Harris, and used their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on Notre Dame Tight end Cole Kmet. Those are significant moves to re-shape the top of the depth chart, to be sure.
But my dad has a saying about “work smarter, not harder” that resonates with me as I think of the tight ends room. And to this point, I’m not sure I love the early returns — particularly when it comes to Kmet’s development. To be clear, it’s too early to throw in the towel on a player who was – by most accounts – the best draft prospect at his position. And for what it’s worth, I appreciate this perspective from Bears Tight Ends Coach Clancy Barone:
“The worst thing you can do with any young player is just assume that that is not important — to grow and have time to get their feet wet and develop,” Barone said, via the Chicago Tribune. “I have no worries. And the big thing is Cole has no worries. Jimmy Graham has no worries. (Demetrius Harris has no worries about Cole. Everyone is on the Cole Kmet train. There are no worries there whatsoever.”
Unfortunately, I have some concerns.
The Cole Kmet Problem
I write this knowing that (1) tight ends have as tough of a development curve as any position group, (2) development wasn’t going to be linear — even with the pedigree of being the 2020 Draft class’ TE1, and (3) the Bears safe-guarded Kmet from getting too much thrown at him by signing free agents Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris. But with all that said, Kmet is still in a tough place.
Through five games, Kmet is TE3 on the depth chart. That’s unsurprising because there was an assumption the Bears would bring him on slowly. But playing just 30.9 percent of offensive plays and being out-snapped by Harris by a 147-104 count says a lot about where Kmet is on the development path. What’s even more concerning is that Kmet hasn’t been used much as a receiver, which was supposed to be one of his strengths coming out of school.
According to Pro Football Focus’ data, Kmet has played on just 34 pass plays in which he wasn’t used as a pass-blocker. On those plays in which he has run out into patterns, Kmet has just three targets and one 12-yard reception. Meanwhile, Harris has ran out into patterns 50 times, has eight catches, and 30 receiving yards. Those aren’t sparkling numbers by any stretch. But it makes me itchy thinking about how Harris is supposed to be an in-line blocking “Y” tight end and is getting more action in the passing game than a projected multi-purpose tight end.
Careers aren’t made in five games. But that Kmet isn’t getting in-game development reps and isn’t doing much with the small sample of snaps he is getting is concerning right now.
So, What’s the Solution?
The easy answer is to get Kmet more playing time. But be careful what you wish for, because you might not like what you get.
For instance, Kmet got 21 snaps in last Thursday’s win against the Buccaneers. That’s good, especially after Head Coach Matt Nagy said the 15 snaps Kmet was in on simply wasn’t enough. But in those snaps, he had more penalties (1) than targets, catches, and receiving yards combined (0). That’s not good. However, the only way for Kmet to reach his potential is for him to keep plugging away. Which means Nagy must continue to throw Kmet into situations and push his threshold. Sometimes, trial by fire can be a good thing.
Take for example this rep highlighted by JJ Stankevitz of NBC Sports Chicago:
I asked #Bears TE coach Clancy Barone why he said rookie Cole Kmet is playing "fantastic" even though he only has 1 catch through 5 games. He specifically brought up how Kmet blocked Jason Pierre-Paul (No. 90) on the first play of Thursday's game. pic.twitter.com/prggUvWJSJ
— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) October 13, 2020
Kmet has started three games already, in part, because he is an able-bodied blocker. He isn’t great at it yet, but as we see in the .gif embedded above, being a willing participant and having a 6-6, 253-pound frame can go a long way toward helping.
Two weeks ago, Barone said he thought Kmet’s implementation into the passing game would’ve happened by now.
“In the the pass game, we can’t really predict where the ball is going to go,” Barone said, via the Sun-Times. “We don’t have ‘him’ routes where you just throw the ball to him. A lot of it depends on the coverages and the protection and things like that.”
Of course the Bears don’t have plays designed to force-feed the ball to Kmet. But he’s also not on the field enough to make an impact as a pass-catcher. But I suppose the important takeaway there is that Kmet’s lack of production isn’t being done by design. That’s a relief.
My mind keeps coming back to the idea that more success Kmet has as a blocker will lend itself to more snaps as a pass-catcher. It’s not a foreign concept that the Bears’ current usage could be used to get him some burn in the passing game. For example, using heavy personnel for a play action pass that gets Kmet open into a pattern because an over-aggressive team plays the run too hard. It’s a thought.
In the end, the Bears need production from an offense that is scratching and clawing just to get 20 points. And that they’re not getting it from the 43rd overall pick in the most recent draft isn’t helping matters. But at least we’ve isolated problems and potential solutions. It’s up to Chicago’s coaches to put it into action.